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Contract talks break off between Northwest, mechanics union
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Members of the mechanics union at Northwest Airlines conducted informational picketing earlier this week, hoping to sway public opinion in their contract dispute with the airline. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
Mechanics for Northwest Airlines have walked away from the negotiating table in Washington D.C., ending the latest attempt to reach a contract agreement. The move continues the march toward a possible walkout on Aug. 19, when mechanics are free to go on strike.

St. Paul, Minn. — The National Mediation Board had scheduled four days of mediated talks this week in Washington D.C. The board has formally lifted a requirement to negotiate, so attendance was purely voluntary.

The mechanics union had warned it would walk if Northwest did not offer to compromise on its annual cost-cutting goal of $176 million. After one day, union spokesman Steve Macfarlane says they had their answer.

"We didn't want to waste the board's time, we didn't want to waste our time, and we don't want to raise expectations that something is getting done," says McFarlane. "We do not believe Northwest is negotiating in good faith, we think they're looking for cover so they can get through the next 18 days."

That's when the clock runs out on the current cooling-off period, required by law before a strike can occur at an airline.

Northwest issued a short statement saying it was disappointed in the union's decision to withdraw. The airline says it is in the best interest of both parties to remain at the negotiating table.

Northwest came to D.C. with two offers the airline calls "significant" and the union calls "meaningless."

First, Northwest proposed a profit-sharing plan for mechanics. Neither the union nor the airline offered specifics. But the union's MacFarlane says profit-sharing is not especially attractive, when Northwest is losing money and behind on payments due to employees for concessions negotiated more than a decade ago.

"Northwest already owes its employees $250 million as it is. So another promise of future profit-sharing is hollow," says MacFarlane.

Northwest also offered what it calls a "job protection" provision. That would guarantee employment for 75 percent of the mechanics who remain after a new contract. The problem, say mechanics, is that the airline's contract proposal still cuts more than half their current members.

John Budd, an industrial relations professor at the University of Minnesota, says the two sides will likely talk again.

"It's a good sign that they were talking this week, but it's not a surprise that things broke apart," says Budd. "I would fully expect everything to go right down to the wire."

Budd says for either side to adjust its negotiating position, it must sell any compromise to its constituency -- whether that's union members or Wall Street. That takes time, and Budd expects Northwest and the mechanics to use all the time they've got before Aug. 19.

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